The Galileo Fallacy: introducing Climate Illogic, a new series unmasking illogical claims made against climate science

The topic of industrial climate disruption (aka climate change or global warming) invokes strong passion by many. Unfortunately, passionate people often fail to make logically sound arguments in the heat of the moment, such as on comment threads.

I’ve spent some time collecting some of the most illogical arguments and I’m starting a series of short posts today that will identify some of the worst offenders and explain why the arguments are illogical.

Let’s start with one of the most common illogical arguments out there.

Climate Illogic: Galileo and denial of industrial climate disruption

Galileo facing the Roman Inquistion by Cristiano Banti (1857)

Galileo was one of the first, if not the first, modern scientist. He demonstrated, with keen observation and mathematics, that Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was correct. He concluded that the observed motions of the planets would all make much more sense if the Earth and planets orbited the Sun rather than having them orbiting the Earth. This claim, however, brought Galileo into conflict with the dominant European political entity of the time – the Catholic Church – which feared that Galileo’s ideas would somehow make the Earth seem less important and could threaten the Church. As a result the Church tried Galileo for heresy.

Galileo’s trial, recantation, and eventual substantiation is used by many to argue – incorrectly – that Galileo’s situation is analogous to that of climate disruption deniers (those who reject the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the reality of industrial climate disruption).

The Galileo analogy is illogical (specifically, it’s a weak analogy logical fallacy) for at least two reasons.

First, Galileo was one of the first scientists in the modern sense of the word. He was a professional who used the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, and data analysis) to deduce the nature of reality and who, when his beliefs failed to conform to what science was telling him, changed his own beliefs to match the science. Contrary to what Galileo did, climate disruption deniers would rather reject the overwhelming scientific evidence than alter their own economic, political, or religious ideology to match the data – that the Earth’s climate is changing, that industrial sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) are the dominant source of the changes, and that the changes will cause significant disruptions to the natural world and human society by 2100.

Second, Galileo was not in conflict with other scientists over heliocentrism – the few other experimental scientists with whom Galileo could have been at odds over the issue (such as Kepler) were also Copernicans. Instead, Galileo was in conflict with the religious dogma of the Catholic Church. Modern climate scientists have been convinced by the scientific evidence since the early 1990s (see Figure 4e) that industrial climate disruption is real and a serious threat. In comparison, there was no scientific evidence to support the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe, only Catholic dogma. Climate disruption deniers who attempt to use Galileo to justify their rejection of scientific evidence place themselves more on the side of the Catholic Church than on Galileo’s side.

Invoking Galileo in an attempt to claim that the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists and climate “super-experts” as well as peer-reviewed climate papers are somehow dogmatic is both illogical and a distortion of Galileo’s actual history and vaunted position in the annals of scientific advancement.

There is, however, an alternative analogy that could be made while still invoking Galileo. Galileo’s situation – a scientist struggling to force a reluctant church to accept reality and change – is much closer to that of modern climate scientists struggling to force a reluctant public (in the US, anyway) to accept the reality that they need to change their industry and their behavior.

For more posts in this series, please click here.

22 replies »

  1. Actually I would argue it is well funded Climate religion and junk science versus real science. just like the church was well funded and shouted down(or tried for heresy) any opposite or opposing view.

    • My problem with that frame, Scott, is the term “junk science.” Linguistically, it suggests a form of science that’s bad. In truth, it IS NOT SCIENCE AT ALL, but ideology and propaganda masquerading as science by appropriating the apparent form of science. If you dress up a wolf in a sheepskin, it doesn’t become a junk sheep. It’s a wolf in disguise. We’re better off calling this crap what it is – propaganda, dogma, etc.

      • There are only 3 ways one can dismiss the modern consensus regarding the primary cause of ongoing climate disruption as ‘crap’, ‘propaganda’ or ‘dogma’. These are by choosing to believe that the majority of climate scientists have reached a conclusion that is:
        1. reasonable when it is in fact unreasonable; or
        2. highly-probable when it is highly-improbable; or
        3. near-certain when they know it is very uncertain.

        These 3 beliefs, if not actually full-blown conspiracy theories, therefore presuppose that the majority of climate scientists as either stupid, sloppy, or sinister. Therefore, even if there were not a mountain of evidence to support the consensus, it would be far more likely that the simplest explanation reflects the reality of the situation – that the consensus is real, reliable and reasonable.

    • Scott, I’ll happily retract my piece if you can demonstrate, with incontrovertible evidence that is free of additional logical fallacies, that climate scientists are basing their expert opinions on something other than scientific evidence.

      You have an uphill battle, however. Climate experts almost universally accept the human-driven causes of climate disruption because the evidence in support of it is overwhelming – multiple independent observational datasets and over a century of theoretical study tends to do create a massive consensus. The number of fundamental theories that would have to be overturned and the number of independent datasets that would all have to be seriously flawed makes disproving even small parts of industrial climate disruption a challenge.

      What makes you think that scientists are engaging in “junk science,” or are letting their personal ideologies corrupt their science, or are corrupted by grant monies, or whatever else you’re basing your “climate religion” comment on?

  2. – It is junk science when they take it beyond what they have validated. Like when they make wild predictions about the future and those predictions don’t come true. Now not every scientist has made wild claims, and not every date that yet been passed, but if you Google you will have no trouble in assembling a list of failed predictions. There are a number of verifiable claims that the Arctic will be Ice free before 2013 even though that is not as drastic as the words at first seem it still has not come true. There are similar claims about many other topics like weather events, and islands being lost to sea level rise.
    – We love science, but there is no need to over extrapolate it.
    (Popper also defines something as pseudoscience when it’s definition is so loose that it can be said to have been affirmed whatever happens.. like it didn’t get hotter, but that is still global waming !)

  3. People who talk about failed model predictions might as well walk around with a sign saying, “I don’t know what I am talking about”. Sea level rise and the warming of the Arctic continue to accelerate faster than predicted because nearly all models do not include positive feedback mechanisms. Although the Antarctic Peninsula is also warming very fast, the remainder of Antarctica is not because, unlike the Arctic, it is surrounded by a vast cold ocean and it has a hole in the ozone layer above it.

    None of this is a reason for complacency about the rest of the planet (where people actually live). Therefore, the correct analogy is that between climate change sceptics and Young Earth (YE) Creationists. Both climate change denial and YE Creationism are forms of ideological blindness but, unlike Creationism, climate change denial is intrinsically dangerous (in the same way that it would be to deny you are being chased by a tiger).

  4. @Martin Flack “Sea level rise and the warming of the Arctic continue to accelerate faster than predicted” REALLY ..people can just google and check the facts
    ..you can’t just answer other peoples points by giving false info
    …”models do not include positive feedback ” just Google,
    We love science – it is people who EXTRAPOLATE Science beyond the validated who are dangerous & are causing harm.
    In other places people have civilised debate If YOU are right, why do youhave to be so vile?” in your communication technique.
    – BTW Name a model which predicted lower temperatures since 1998 than actually occured

    • Stew, models don’t make “predictions” at all, they make “projections.” The difference is important – a prediction is a forecast of a specific outcome, while a projection is “an estimate of future possibilities based on a current trend.”

      A single model run would be a “prediction.” The statistics (mean and standard deviation, for example) derived from the same model being run a dozen times is a “projection.”

      There’s even a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters by David Easterling and Michael Wehner titled “Is the climate warming or cooling?” that discusses this in detail. I linked to the .pdf version available at ESRL.

      The difference between the two is similar to the difference between weather and climate – climate is what you expect, weather is what you get. Put another way, climate is the average weather.

    • There’s something else I’d like to point you to, Stew. Section 10.3.5 of the IPCC AR4 WG1 report reads, in part:

      Future changes in anthropogenic forcing will result not only in changes in the mean climate state but also in the variability of climate…. Räisänen (2002) also finds an increase in monthly mean precipitation variability in most areas, both in absolute value (standard deviation) and in relative value (coefficient of variation). However, the significance level of these variability changes is markedly lower than that for time mean climate change. Similar results were obtained from 18 AOGCM simulations under the SRES A2 scenario (Giorgi and Bi, 2005). [emphasis added]

      Simplified, the part I emphasized means that climate models have projected that we’ll bounce from dry to wet faster, and with greater intensity.

      And that’s what we’re starting to see. Not yet on a monthly basis, but on a multi-month basis and a year-to-year basis. It’s only going to get worse.

      Check out this video on the same subject.

      • – Brian I completely accept that point. Without checking I can believe it says that in an IPCC report. “a prediction that the variability of climate will increase”
        1. What does Popper sday about a scientific theory that ..is considered validated under every circumstance ..whatever happens ?
        2. “And that’s what we’re starting to see.” – I have to call you out on this. That is indeed CONFIRMATION BIAS ..you are extrapolating the science beyond the validated. I am not aware of a peer reviewed report that confirms this.. and remeber we need lots of replicated peer reviwed report before something is considered VALIDATED.
        – And that is the main point we skeptics have VALIDATED science is fine, but when “warmists” say we have to implement policies based on extrapolating science beyond the VALIDATED.. we have to say NO, NO, ..get the science first and then we will back you

        • Another point (since I answered the confirmation bias part of this comment in my other response) is that people implement policies based on extrapolated data all the time. Economic extrapolations, for example. In fact, policies are often based on objectively incorrect economic extrapolations.

          And Popper’s point is only applicable in cases where the evidence isn’t consistent with the hypothesis. Thus far the evidence has been consistent with the model projections. Don’t confuse ignorance of the underlying physics and the actual model projections with knowledge that the projections are not falsifiable.

          For example, record snowfalls are entirely within the expectations of the fundamental physics of climate disruption, as I’ve described here. But many so-called “skeptics” claim that it’s an example of just how supposedly unfalsifiable the model projections are. That’s simple ignorance on the part of the “skeptics,” nothing more.

          Nearly every example I’ve seen of “skeptics” trying to demonstrate that climate projections are not falsifiable fall into this category. And every example I’ve seen to date that didn’t fall into this category fell into the range of natural variability (the uncertainty bands).

    • @spewgreen – Rather than just assert that Google searches can falsify my statements, would you care to post the evidence?

      The sea ice in the Arctic is disappearing faster than was projected even 5 years ago.

      When you go back to look at model projections made over 20 years ago, using the emissions scenario closest to what actually happened, climate models have proven themselves extremely accurate.

      With regard to global average temperatures, are you still not tired of running down the up escalator?

  5. @Brian Angliss “NO, I cannot name a model which PROJECTED lower temperatures since 1998 than than what actually ocurred.” is what you meant to say .
    – But instead we got a long attempt to go off topic by talking about pedantics.
    ..well at least you didn’t just resort to namecalling and insults, which is typical response on “Catastrophe Cult” blogs when asked difficult questions. ..aswell as censoring

    • Shorter Stew: “I didn’t understand Brian’s point, and I didn’t bother to read the paper he referred to, so instead I’ll make vague accusations about him, his blog, and the huge number of scientists with whom I disagree on this issue.”

      I said exactly what I meant to say, Stew. You failed to understand the distinction even though I summarized it and provided links to more detailed definitions. I also provided a means by which you could educate yourself on this topic, and you failed to read or understand it. The Easterling paper describes a single model run that DID happen to predict a period of slowing similar to this one, along with an excellent explanation of why climate scientists don’t use that information.

      If you’re unwilling to read the original paper, I summarize it and why it matters in a post from 2009, shortly after the paper was published, here.

      I have led you to water, Stew. Now choose whether you wish to drink or not.

  6. What will FALSIFY your hypothesis ? .. it seems you only consider things that confirm it.
    – apologies it is your blog .. and you can say what you like, but I see how you censor debate, by not addressing direct questions but by moving quickly on to questions you think you can win on, that’s BULLYING
    … sounds like CONFIRMATION BIAS style to me where you rather unscientifically won’t examine any arguments that might dispute your hypothesis.; rather you only notice those ones that confirm. But that is not how science works .. the standard way is to try to try to disconfirm your hypotheses. The key is to not to state what confirms your hypothesis, but what will FALSIFY it.
    …. If in 30 years time temperatures, ice levels, sea levels are still pretty much stable (even though CO2 CO2 might be rising ..well it was at 4000ppm when our primate ancestors lived) will your hypothesis still stand up ?
    ..“led you to water”
    I am not 2 steps behind you I am 20 steps ahead. I was firmly in the green movement 20 years ago, but then it moved away from logic so I came out the otherside of the “green tunnel” and into reality.
    – False friends say “yes, yes” .. It is only true friends that will dare to tell you truth.

    • Oddly, you haven’t indicated that you’ve read or understood my point on projections vs. predictions, nor have you admitted that the Easterling paper does exactly what you asked of me. Instead you’re now accusing me of confirmation bias and, as you put it yourself, “moving quickly on to questions you think you can win on.”

      Accept or counter-argue my point about projections vs. predictions. Once you’ve done that we can move on to your other topics.

      BTW, your accusation of confirmation bias may well be true. I think it’s simply observing that the models projected an effect that is now occurring, but confirmation bias on my part cannot be entirely ruled out. Furthermore, I submit that your automatic rejection of the possibility that the model could be right is evidence of your own biases in this matter.

      And if you really think that skipping an easily refuted point about the Arctic sea ice (whichthis image dispells nicely), or skipping a point on which I have no comment since I haven’t researched it much, is “bullying,” then I recommend you acquire a thicker skin.